Aerial View of Birgu's Fortifications in Malta

Malta Cruise Port Guide: Three Cities DIY Shore Excursion Itinerary

Malta’s history unfolds like a captivating story, and stepping into the fortified towns of Birgu (Vittoriosa), Senglea (Isla), and Cospicua (Bormla) โ€“ collectively known as the Three Cities โ€“ is like flipping through its most thrilling chapters. These harbour side gems boast a rich tapestry woven with tales of courageous knights, fierce battles, and a maritime legacy that shaped the island nation.

First trip to Malta? I would recommend visiting Valletta – see my Valletta DIY excursion guide for all you need to know to navigate around Valletta from the cruise port.

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Malta Cruise Port: Is a DIY Excursion Easy? ๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž (Easy-Peasy)

My DIY Shore Excursion Rating for Valletta cruise port is ๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž๐Ÿ˜Ž  – Easy Peasy! Here’s why:

  • Just walk off the ship” easy: Easy 3-min walk from Valletta cruise port to the ferry terminal for the Three Cities
  • Frequent ferry services: Every 30 minutes to Birgu (Vittoriosa) or Senglea (Isla), making this itinerary an easy DIY excursion
  • Just missed a ferry? Take the Barrakka Lift to the Upper Barrakka Gardens & enjoy the views โ€“ no need to walk up that hill from the cruise port!
  • Excellent bus connections throughout Malta – easy alternative return trip back to Valletta cruise port

Valletta Cruise Port Essentials: All You Need to Know

  • Where is Valletta cruise port? Pinto Wharf Valletta, FRN 1913, Malta
  • Currency: Euro
  • Language: Maltese is the national language but English is an official language in Malta, too.
  • Official Valletta Port Website: Facilities include free Wifi at the cruise terminal!
  • Official Tourism WebsiteVisit Maltaโ€™s website
  • Transport App: I used Google Maps while I was in Malta and the public transit directions were correct and up-to-date. Alternatively, you can use the official Malta public transport app or home page. I used buses to get around and you can pay using a contactless card or cash on the bus.
  • eSIM for roaming in Malta: For a great data connection without the huge roaming fees, use an eSim data pack from Airalo. I always recommend having a smartphone with a valid plan when youโ€™re at port touring independently. Get US$3 off your first eSIM data pack from Airalo when you use ROXANN1666 when you sign up or apply it at checkout
  • My Malta Three Cities Map: ๐Ÿ‘‡ Click on the upper right hand corner to see a bigger map. If the map is not loading, click here to see it directly on Google Maps

Getting to the Three Cities from Valletta Cruise Port

The most enjoyable and convenient way to reach the Three Cities from your cruise ship docked in Valletta is undoubtedly the picturesque ferry ride. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Ferry Departure Point: The ferry terminal in Valletta is located 5 minutes’ walk from the Valletta cruise terminal exit. Once out of the cruise terminal, keep walking on the main road and look for signage for the ‘Ferry to Three Cities’ or ‘Dgฤงajsa tal-Pass’. ๐Ÿ‘† See also map above.
  • Frequency: Ferries depart every 30 minutes on the hour and half hour – double check timetables here
  • Tickets: One-way ticket costs โ‚ฌ2 for adults, โ‚ฌ1 for kids. Day-return ticket costs โ‚ฌ3.80 for adults, โ‚ฌ1.50 for kids. Buy at the ferry terminal with cash. (Online reports suggest cards not always accepted, though I paid with card!)
  • The Scenic Journey: The ferry ride itself is an experience! Sit on the top deck! Enjoy panoramic views of the Grand Harbour, historic fortifications, and Valletta’s skyline as you cross over to the Three Cities. The trip takes about 15 minutes.
  • Arrival at Cospicua Terminal: Once you arrive at the ferry terminal in Cospicua, I would recommend starting in Birgu and then walk through Senglea, leaving Cospicua last.

Return Trip: Easiest and most direct route is to catch the same ferry service back to Valletta but I’ll provide an alternative route back to Valletta via bus below.

Step Back in Time: Unveiling the Three Cities of Malta

Aerial view of Birgu & Senglea waterfronts, with boats moored in marina by Birgu, Malta
Birgu (left) & Senglea Waterfronts, Photo by Polina Kovaleva

The origins of the Three Cities predate the Middle Ages, with Birgu being the oldest amongst them. However, their rise to prominence truly began in the 16th century. Following the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, where the Knights of St. John successfully defended the island from a massive Ottoman invasion, the Knights decided to strengthen Malta’s defenses.

They significantly fortified Birgu, which had already played a crucial role in the siege, and built Senglea on a nearby peninsula. Cospicua, located on the mainland, soon followed, further bolstering the island’s defensive capabilities.

The name “Three Cities” comes naturally, reflecting their geographical proximity and shared history. Together, they formed a vital defensive complex known as Cottonera, a strategic network of fortifications surrounding the Grand Harbour.

In contrast to the more modern and planned capital city of Valletta, built by the Knights shortly after the Great Siege, the Three Cities exude a unique charm. They offer a glimpse into Malta’s pre-Valletta era, with winding streets, historic buildings, and a strong sense of local character.

So, while Valletta showcases the Knights’ architectural prowess and serves as Malta’s administrative centre, the Three Cities offer a captivating journey into the island’s soul, its struggles, and its triumphs.

Uncover Birgu’s Secrets: 5 Historic Gems You Can’t Miss

Stepping into Vittoriosa, or Birgu as it was historically known, is like stepping back into the dramatic chapters of Malta’s past. This fortified city, perched on a peninsula jutting into the Grand Harbour, served as the stronghold of the Knights of St. John and played a pivotal role in defending the island during the epic Great Siege of 1565.

It’s no wonder Birgu earned its name Vittoriosa โ€“ meaning “victorious” โ€“ after withstanding the Ottoman onslaught. Today, its historical treasures and charming streets offer a captivating journey for cruise ship visitors.

1. Fort St. Angelo

At the tip of Birgu sits the mighty Fort St. Angelo, a formidable guardian of the Grand Harbour. Built by the Knights, this imposing fortress witnessed centuries of conflict. Explore its bastions, chapels, and hidden passages, and imagine the battles that once unfolded here. Climb to its ramparts for breathtaking 360-degree views of the harbour and its cities.

  • Opening Hours: 10am to 6pm daily from March to December, check winter hours on Heritage Malta’s website
  • Tickets: Adults โ‚ฌ10, Students, Youths (12-17) & Seniors 60+ โ‚ฌ6, Kids 6-11 โ‚ฌ4

2. The Inquisitor’s Palace

Once the seat of power for the feared Inquisition, the Inquisitor’s Palace now stands as a fascinating museum. Wander through its grand rooms, peer into the somber prison cells, and discover chilling exhibits revealing a complex chapter of Malta’s history. The Inquisitor’s Palace offers a unique glimpse into the island’s legal and societal practices over the centuries.

  • Opening Hours: 9am to 5pm Tuesdays to Sundays from March to December. Closed Mondays. Check winter hours on Heritage Malta’s website
  • Tickets: Adults โ‚ฌ6, Students, Youths (12-17) & Seniors 60+ โ‚ฌ4.50, Kids 6-11 โ‚ฌ3

3. Maritime Museum

Facade of the Maritime Museum in Birgu, Malta
Maritime Museum, Birgu. Image courtesy of Heritage Malta

Delve into Malta’s rich maritime legacy at the Maritime Museum, housed within the former Royal Naval Bakery. Explore exhibits displaying model ships, naval weaponry, and artifacts that tell the story of Malta’s centuries-long relationship with the sea. For cruisers, this museum provides a fascinating context for the maritime landscape in Malta.

  • Opening Hours: 10am to 6pm daily from March to December, check winter hours on Heritage Malta’s website.
  • Temporary Exhibition in 2024: Note that the museum is closed in 2024 for renovations but there is a temporary exhibition called “An Island at the Crossroads” open at the Maritime Museum.
  • Tickets: Adults โ‚ฌ8, Students, Youths (12-17) & Seniors 60+ โ‚ฌ6, Kids 6-11 โ‚ฌ4
  • Waterfront location: If the museum doesn’t interest you, then its prime waterfront location may still be of interest.

4. Malta at War Museum

While exploring Birgu, history buffs can delve deeper with a visit to the Malta at War Museum. Located within a historic barrack block and an underground air-raid shelter, this museum showcases Malta’s experience during World War II.

I marked it “optional” here, as history buffs may spend 2-3 hours there. Read my experience at Malta at War Museum here. I did spend close to 3 hours there, including an hour on an included guided tour of the war tunnels! But you are free to walk around the war tunnels by yourself – just pick up a hard hat on the way in! Beware that the war tunnels are huge, so if you want to see it, get there at least an hour before closing time.

  • Opening Hours: 10am to 4:30pm, Mondays to Saturdays, closed Sundays. Double check opening hours here.
  • Tickets: Adults โ‚ฌ14, Seniors โ‚ฌ12, Kids (5-15) โ‚ฌ7 and family tickets are โ‚ฌ28

5. Get lost in Birgu’s maze of narrow streets

Lose yourself in Birgu’s maze of narrow streets, lined with beautifully preserved historical buildings, quaint shops, and traditional cafes. You won’t really get lost, as you’re never far from the harbour itself. Birgu offers a less polished, more genuine glimpse of daily life in Malta than Valletta.

Ticket Tip: Heritage Malta offers a “Harbour Combo Ticket” for โ‚ฌ16 adults, โ‚ฌ10 for students, youths (12-17) & seniors 60+, โ‚ฌ7 for kids 6-11, which includes Fort St. Angelo, The Inquisitors’ Palace and the temporary exhibition at the Maritime Museum. Well worth it if you plan on visiting all three sites. Just ask for the combo ticket at each of the sites’ ticket office.

Senglea: Panoramic Views and Wartime Tales

Built on a narrow peninsula opposite Birgu, Senglea (also known as Isla) played its own crucial role in Malta’s maritime defense. Though small in size, this walled city boasts breathtaking views, historic fortifications, and its own share of wartime stories.

1. Gardjola Gardens

Start your exploration at the Gardjola Gardens, located at the tip of Senglea. This scenic spot offers an unparalleled panorama of the Grand Harbour, Valletta, and the neighboring Three Cities. See if you can find the sculpted eye and ear on the watchtower, a symbol of vigilance against invaders.

  • Getting there: Gardjola Gardens is about a 25 min walk from the Cospicua ferry terminal (where the Valletta ferry stops). There are many opportunities to stop on the way.
  • Return trip: Catch Bus #1 from the Isla Bus terminal back to Valletta Bus terminal, to avoid having to walk all the way back to the ferry terminal. My main Valletta guide has tips on how to navigate from the Valletta bus terminal back to the cruise port.
  • If you’re not a keen walker, then skip this entirely.

2. Senglea’s Fortifications

Walk along Senglea’s impressive bastions, reminders of its strategic importance. Imagine centuries of watchmen standing guard against Ottoman attacks or more recent air raids. Explore the network of defensive walls, gates, and towers for a unique perspective of the harbour and neighbouring towns.

3. Single’s Wartime Legacy

Senglea suffered heavily during World War II, enduring relentless bombardment due to its strategic location. As you explore, look for plaques or subtle reminders embedded within the city, reminding visitors of the hardships and resilience of the past.

Cospicua (Bormla): Fortifications and Local Life

The largest of the Three Cities, Cospicua (known as Bormla to locals), lies on the mainland facing Birgu and Senglea across the Grand Harbour. Built alongside its historic neighbours, Cospicua played a vital role in fortifying Malta’s defenses. While less touristy than the other two cities, it still offers visitors a unique look into Malta’s history, as well as a taste of authentic daily life. I left Bormla last as, in my view, it has the least to see for tourists. If you’re running out of time, then skip this section altogether and head back to the ferry terminal.

1. Cottonera Lines: Exploring Imposing Defences

Discover the massive Cottonera Lines, a chain of fortifications built by the Knights of St. John to protect the Three Cities from a land attack. Walk along sections of these impressive walls, explore gates (such as St. Helen’s Gate) and imagine the might of this defensive system. ๐Ÿ‘† You can see the Cottonera Lines in the satellite photos above.

2. Cospicua’s Heart: A Taste of Traditional Malta

Step away from the waterfront and venture into the heart of Cospicua. Admire the elegant Immaculate Conception church, stroll the town square, and discover a less-visited side of Malta. From the church, you’ll be 5 minutes walk from the ferry terminal, for your trip back to Valletta cruise port.

Featured Image by Polina Kovaleva

The Three Cities of Malta offer a captivating journey back in time, perfect for cruisers seeking an enriching taste of the island’s rich history and undeniable charm. I hope this guide has inspired you to venture beyond Valletta and discover their hidden treasures. If you find these tips useful, don’t forget to share this post with fellow cruisers exploring Malta! Have a wonderful day exploring the beautiful Three Cities!

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